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Exercising Poor Judgement 

The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan " writers, directors and producers extraordinaire " are not just good but also impressively productive. Including their debut, Blood Simple in 1984, the Coens have made 13 films at a rate of more than one picture every other year. Inevitably, some of this work will prove more enduring than others. Their current feature, Burn After Reading, is more than adequately entertaining, but it will not join Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and last year's Oscar winner No Country for Old Men among their essential films.

Burn After Reading is a screwball parody of espionage thrillers, its jokey plot as snarled as that in Syriana. Longtime CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is fired for alcoholism and decides he'll write his memoirs and embarrass some of the higher-ranking spooks who canned him. In long, fitful days, clad in boxers, undershirt and gaping robe, he does more pacing and imbibing than writing. This proves considerably aggravating to his monumentally irritable, pediatrician wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) who decides to divorce Osborne and marry her longtime lover, U.S. Marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney).

Harry draws a government paycheck, but he's like Jack Lemmon in Under the Yum Yum Tree. As best we can tell, he spends 80 percent of his time having sex with just about any woman willing to doff her knickers. The other 20 percent of his time, Harry divides between working out and building an elaborate sex apparatus in his basement. Katie knows that Harry is married to prominent children's book author Sandy Pfarrer (Elizabeth Marvel), but she doesn't realize that Harry thinks of himself, despite his incessant philandering, as in love with his wife, whom he would never leave.

Complications are further knotted when a legal assistant working for Katie's divorce lawyer drops a computer disk containing Osborne's financial history in a gym locker room where it falls into the hands of two loony exercise instructors, Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand). Improbably, Chad and Linda are able to discover that Osborne works for the CIA (they have no clue he's been fired). Incorrectly, they assume that the CD includes top secret information. Determined to collect a 'Good Samaritan Reward," which Chad thinks is a federal law, they offer to return the disk to Osborne for $50,000. Osborne, of course, is unaware Katie has been researching his finances, but for some reason thinks that Chad and Linda have stolen his memoirs. This last twist is puzzling because to our knowledge Osborne hasn't gotten any further with his autobiography than a few incoherent phrases mumbled into a tape recorder. Nonetheless, an enraged Osborne responds with fisticuffs rather than cash. And in a move of inspired nuttiness, Linda decides that if Osborne won't fork out to protect his secrets, the Russians will eagerly pay to examine them. And then, closing the circle, Linda becomes Harry's latest bedmate.

One can't help but admire the intricacy with which the Coens bring their various plot elements together. Furthermore, the film offers the chance to see Brad Pitt as you've never seen him before. A fine, serious actor, here he unleashes pure silliness as his airhead Chad leaps from wrong presumption to ill-advised proposition. McDormand's Linda provides a remonstrance to Hollywood's physical perfection obsession. Linda is an attractive and fit woman in early middle age. But she believes that she's 'gone just about as far as I can with this body." She wants a face lift, bigger breasts, a tummy tuck and her arms and buttocks reduced. A routine villain is motivated by greed. Linda's motivation is plastic surgery. Chad's zaniness, Linda's obsession, Harry's randiness and Katie's irascibility provide steady laughs throughout. There are moments of poignancy, too. Linda wants to fix her body so that she can finally find Mr. Right, but she's oblivious to the fact that Mr. Right is her boss Ted (Richard Jenkins), who likes her just the way she is. Ted's devotion to Linda is such that he's even willing to put himself in harm's way for her, though Linda manages never quite to notice.

Still, Burn After Reading never rises to hilarity, and coming on the heels of the disturbing No Country for Old Men, the picture is, by comparison, a let down. It is airy to the point of evanescence with nothing urgent or serious to say. Regrettably, it also contains a scene of violence so stark I couldn't help but turn away. The scene's unnecessary inclusion seems an act of judgment poor enough to rival that of the film's characters.

click to enlarge Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand) try their hands at the espionage business in Burn After Reading. - 2008 FOCUS FEATURES
  • 2008 Focus Features
  • Chad (Brad Pitt) and Linda (Frances McDormand) try their hands at the espionage business in Burn After Reading.
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